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  • Writer's pictureCarrie Specht

Patricia Neal, American Actress Dies at 84

Best known for her film roles in The Day the Earth Stood Still and Face in the Crowd, Patricia Neal has passed away at the age of 84. Possessing a sultry voice and a very sexy demeanor, Neal was a unique woman of her times. Her roles required that the character she played ooze sex appeal, but her intelligence was always as apparent as her measurements. Both being quite substantial and enviable by many a Hollywood starlet.

The Oscar (Hud) and Tony (Another Part of the Forest) Award-winning actress, was born Patsy Louise Neal in Packard, Kentucky. She grew up in Knoxville, where she attended high school. She was bit by the acting bug at the age of 10, after attending an evening of monologues at a Methodist church. That year she wrote a letter to Santa Claus asking, "What I want for Christmas is to study dramatics". Santa must have received her letter, because she would later win a State Award for dramatic reading while in high school.

Neal kept up her studies, first by apprenticing at the Barter Theater in Abingdon, Virginia between her junior and senior years in high school, and then spent two years at Northwestern University, before heading to New York City where in 1947 she landed the job as an understudy in The Voice of the Turtle. It was the producer of that play that had her change her name from the rather quaint "Patsy" to the much more sophisticated "Patricia". Neal joined the the touring company of "Turtle", taking on the lead role full time. Without missing a step went from her first big role to appearing in summer stock productions. She then won the role of the teenage "Regina" in Lillian Hellman's play, Another Part of the Forest, for which she won a Tony Award in 1947. Subsequently, she signed a seven-year contract with Warner Bros.

In the first part of her film career, Neal's most impressive roles were in The Fountainhead in 1949 opposite Gary Cooper, and in director Robert Wise's sci-fi classic, and The Day the Earth Stood Still in 1951, which she made at 20th Century-Fox after Warners let her go before her contract was up. But Fox had the same trouble with Neal as Warners had - they didn't know what to do with her. Her acting style was different than most actresses of the day, which made it challenging for the studios to pigeon-hole her in the usual roles available to young women at the time.

With her film career stagnating, Neal returned to Broadway and achieved the success that eluded her in films. While in New York, she became a member of the Actors Studio, and made connections with members who would help her in her career. Actors Studio founder, Elia Kazan cast Neal in A Face in the Crowd in 1957. In 1961 she co-starred with fellow "Studio" member George Peppard in Breakfast at Tiffany's, and in 1963 director by Martin Ritt cast Neal in Hud opposite one of the Studios greatest legacies, Paul Newman. Not only was the film a hit, but Neal won the Best Actress Oscar for portraying the middle-aged house worker, Alma.

Not too long after that triumph, Neal suffered a series of strokes that nearly killed her. She was actually in the middle of filming John Ford's last film, 7 Women, and had to be replaced by Anne Bancroft. She turned down the role of Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate (1967) as she had not yet fully recovered. Bancroft would later take the role. When she did return to the screen in 1968 in The Subject Was Roses she suffered from memory problems. Subsequently, new acting roles equal to her talent were sparse, yet she managed to receive three Emmy nominations, one for originating the role of "Olivia Walton" in the 1971 TV movie The Homecoming: A Christmas Story. That TV special gave birth to the recurring television series The Waltons.

Patricia Neal died in Edgarton, Massachusetts from lung cancer. She was 84 years old.

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